Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is al Qaeda Growing Weaker?....or Stronger?

Osama bin Laden has been in hiding since 2001. He is presumably physically isolated, but able to communicate. There have been no significant attacks on the West that can be directly attributed to bin Laden and the top al Qaeda leadership. One might feel safe in assuming that al Qaeda’s capability to cause harm has been diminished. Two recent articles look at the situation and draw different conclusions.

Thomas Rid has written an article for the winter, 2010 Wilson Quarterly: Cracks in the Jihad. Rid includes these statements that constitute a summation of what he believes is the state of al Qaeda today.
“....Al Qaeda is no longer a collective political actor. It is no longer an adversary that can articulate a will, capitulate, and be defeated. But the jihad’s new weakness is also its new strength: Because of its transformation, Islamist militancy is politically impaired yet fitter to survive its present crisis.”

“In the years since late 2001, when U.S. and coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime and all but destroyed Al Qaeda’s core organization in Afghanistan, the bin Laden brand has been bleeding popularity across the Muslim world. The global jihad, as a result, has been torn by mounting internal tensions.”

“Al Qaeda’s altered design has a number of immediate consequences. The global jihad is losing....a strong cause, and with it its political character. This change is making it increasingly difficult to distinguish jihad from organized crime on the one side and rudderless fanaticism on the other.”
From this one could conclude that bin Laden is personally less powerful, and that al Qaeda, as an organization, is less capable of causing significant terrorist operations. Rid points out that this is not necessarily a reason to rejoice because the dissemination of power and influence makes it all that much harder to counter these activities. The dissemination referred to is the formation of allied groups of Islamists in Yemen, Maghreb, and Iraq. Rid sees these groups as more interested in local issues, and ineffective and uninterested in bin Laden’s global ambitions.

Leah Farrall provided an article for the March/April 2011 edition of Foreign Affairs: How al Qaeda Works. Farrall provides these statements to summarize the state of affairs.
“Despite nearly a decade of war, al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks. Before 2001, its history was checkered with mostly failed attempts to fulfill its most enduring goal: the unification of other militant Islamist groups under its strategic leadership. However, since fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan's tribal areas in late 2001, al Qaeda has founded a regional branch in the Arabian Peninsula and acquired franchises in Iraq and the Maghreb. Today, it has more members, greater geographic reach, and a level of ideological sophistication and influence it lacked ten years ago.”

“Still, most accounts of the progress of the war against al Qaeda contend that the organization is on the decline, pointing to its degraded capacity to carry out terrorist operations and depleted senior leadership as evidence that the group is at its weakest since 9/11. But such accounts treat the central al Qaeda organization separately from its subsidiaries and overlook its success in expanding its power and influence through them. These groups should not be ignored.”

“Because al Qaeda will continue to encourage its branch and franchises to carry out attacks and will continue to use the reactions they provoke to pursue its goals, it is important that the strategic picture of al Qaeda accurately reflect the organization's broad operating dynamics instead of wishful thinking about the central organization's degraded capacity.”
Both Rid and Farrall would probably agree that there are more organized groups of terrorists who would consider themselves aligned with al Qaeda active now than there were before 2001. The big difference is in how these groups are viewed in terms of a threat. Both authors would also agree that these Islamists are mostly interested in their local initiatives. Rid indicates that bin Laden/al Qaeda has little influence, while Farrall believes that there is sufficient influence to coerce these groups to go international with their terrorism.

Rid has this to say:
“....coerced by adversaries and enabled by the Internet, the global jihadi movement has dismantled and disrupted its own ability to act as one coherent entity. No leader is in a position to articulate the movement’s will, let alone enforce it.”
Farrall counters with:
“So even as they pursued local agendas, the franchises were required to undertake some attacks against Western interests, and leaders of groups joining al Qaeda had to be willing to present a united front, stay on message, and be seen to fall under al Qaeda's authority -- all crucial for demonstrating the organization's power and attracting others to its cause.”

“AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) has a closer relationship with al Qaeda than AQIM (al Qaeda in Maghreb). Still, AQIM has generally cooperated at least with requests to stay on message and present the image of a united and hierarchical organization. This emphasis on a unified appearance was clear when, in November 2010, AQIM's leader, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, announced that France would have to negotiate directly with bin Laden for the release of hostages held by AQIM. Although in recent times, the capacity of both franchises has been weakened by intensified counterterrorism efforts against them, neither has shown any signs of abandoning al Qaeda's global agenda in favor of purely local goals.”
So who is correct? Is the world less safe now than it was ten years ago?

I think Rid has presented the more compelling argument. Farrall’s contention that “al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks,” is based on the claim that the organization is larger and more survivable now. But numbers of adherents and international extent do not necessarily translate into power. Rid is implying that al Qaeda and its satellites are incapable of organizing another event comparable to 9/11. The data seems to support Rid. While there are many horrific attacks taking place, they are almost exclusively local groups pursuing local agendas. The few attempts to go international seem half-hearted or amateurish in comparison to 9/11. If bin Laden cannot use these groups to organize activities that have international impact, then it is safe to say that he and al Qaeda are less powerful then they were ten years ago.

To close an unpleasant topic on a positive note, here are data quoted by Rid.
“The goal of leading Islamists has always been to turn their battle into ‘the Islamic Nation’s battle,’.... Far from reaching this goal, the jihad is veering the other way. Eight years after 9/11, support for Islamic extremism in the Muslim world is at its lowest point. Support for Al Qaeda has slipped most dramatically in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Jordan. In 2003, more than 50 percent of those surveyed in these countries agreed that bin Laden would “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” the Pew Global Attitudes Project found. By 2009 the overall level of support had dropped by half, to about 25 percent. In Pakistan, traditionally a stronghold of extremism, only nine percent of Muslims have a favorable view of Al Qaeda, down from 25 percent in 2008.”

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